How to manage e-waste

Precious metals like copper, gold, platinum, silver, and nickel are found in everyday electronics, making it crucial to properly dispose of this “e-waste.”

For decorative purposes.
MSU Recycling Center and Surplus Store electronic ‘thrift’ store. Photo credit: Susan Toppen

New electronics can be exciting gifts to give or receive, particularly during the holiday season. However, the latest and greatest high-definition televisions, smart phones, tablets, appliances, and computers often replace the purpose and need of older models of these electronics currently in our homes. This leads to the question: what do we do with these old electronics? 

Electronics contain a wide variety of precious metals which can be repurposed and reused in other products. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for every 1 million cell phones recycled, 35,274 pounds of copper and 772 pounds of silver are recovered. If electronics are simply thrown away in landfills, then these precious metals are thrown away, too. A United Nations study found that 53.6 million tons of e-waste was discarded in 2019, and less than 18 percent of it was recycled or disposed of in a proper manner. That equates to over $10 billion worth of precious metals being thrown away in landfills every year, according to Damian Carrington in an article for The Guardian. The amount of e-waste is only expected to grow as our electronic devices have shorter life spans and fewer repair options. Outside of financial reasons, there are environmental reasons we should properly dispose of electronics. Electronics can contain hazardous materials, such as lead, cadmium, and mercury, that have the potential of leaching into the surrounding land and groundwater when not disposed of properly. 

Ways to recycle unwanted electronics

So, if it is financially and environmentally irresponsible to dispose of e-waste in a trash can, what can be done to reuse and recycle them? Your unwanted electronic device might still be valuable. Consider donating or reselling it. One example is Dell Reconnect, which is a partnership between Dell and Goodwill. Goodwill accepts any brand of computer, and many electronics that plug into computers, at participating locations around the country. Many manufacturers and retailers also offer recycling and take-back programs. Most of the time the product does not have to be a specific brand or purchased directly from the retailer. Popular retailers include Best Buy, Staples, and Apple. Consumers can also drop off e-waste at a Responsible Recycling (R2) or E-Steward Recycling location

Many local governments and municipalities host local electronic recycling events throughout the year. For more information regarding e-waste recycling in Michigan, visit the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) recycling page.

A commonly forgotten and discarded e-waste material is batteries. There are several different types of batteries, from single-use to rechargeable, so how to properly dispose of them differs. While batteries are recyclable, they should not be placed into curbside recycling containers because they contain toxic chemicals and are a fire risk. Many retailers participate in the national Call2Recycle program, which maintains a list of drop-off locations

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that taking an effort to properly dispose of e-waste is a great way to practice stewardship of your local environment and be financially responsible. 

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